Three AFC South Games to be Played in Primetime in 2008
INDIANAPOLIS - The AFC South emerged last season as not only one of the NFL's toughest divisions, but one of the toughest in decades.
Next season, it will be more than tough. It will be high-profile, too.
The NFL on Tuesday announced its 2008 regular-season schedule, with the Colts playing five games on national television in primetime. Of those games, two – an October 27 game at the Tennessee Titans and a December 18 game at the Jacksonville Jaguars – will be in the AFC South.
The Houston Texans' December 1 home game against Jacksonville also will be primetime, giving the division three such games.
In the division's first six seasons, the league scheduled just one AFC South game in prime time – a Monday night game between the Jaguars and Colts in Jacksonville in October of last season.
All of which speaks to the competitiveness of the division, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said.
"I think it does," Dungy said Tuesday afternoon. "It's a very, very tough division. Although we're not big-market teams, there are good teams in this division. You have three teams that were in the playoffs, and a Houston team that was very competitive."
The league also scheduled the Colts' Week 3 home game against Jacksonville in a high-profile, 4:15 p.m. slot.
The AFC South and the NFC East each sent three teams to the playoffs this past season, the second and third time since the NFL's 2002 realignment a division has qualified three teams.
The Colts, Jaguars and Titans all made the postseason last season. No team in the AFC South finished with a losing record, with the Colts finishing 13-3, the Jaguars finishing 11-5, the Titans finishing 10-6 and the Texans finishing with the best record in franchise history, 8-8.
The AFC South teams combined for 42 victories in 2007, the most of any division since the NFL's 2002 realignment.
The Colts and Titans played on Sunday Night in the regular-season finale this past season, a game that was moved to primetime under the NFL's flexible-scheduling plan.
A DIFFERENT FEEL: The Colts have won the AFC South each of the past five seasons.
To win again this season, they'll have to negotiate a division schedule that Dungy said is decidedly different than the two previous seasons.
In 2006, the Colts won their first three AFC South games at home in the season's first five weeks en route to a 9-0 start. They clinched the division with two regular-season games remaining despite losing their final three AFC South games – all in December, all on the road.
Last season, the Colts played their first three AFC South games on the road in the first six games of the season. They won all three en route to a 7-0 start, again clinching with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
This season, the division schedule breaks down as follows:
Home against Jacksonville (September 21, Week 3), at Houston (October 5, Week 5), at Tennessee (October 27, Week 8), home against Houston (November 16, Week 11), at Jacksonville (December 18, Week 16) and home against Tennessee (December 28, Week 17).
"They're a little bit spread out this year, which I think is good," Dungy said. "We have one in Jacksonville on the Thursday night (in December), one in Tennessee on a Monday night (in October). I think those will be big games, and no doubt will get nice crowds there. Other than that, I think they were spread out well. We'll have to do what we can to win those games, obviously. Those become very imant.
"They should be big games coming down the stretch. Going to Jacksonville will be tough on a Thursday night. We finish up with Tennessee as we did this (past) year. You can't really read too much into it. I think the big thing for us is knowing we want to get off to a fast start again and get people chasing us."
HIGH-PROFILE FEEL: The Colts' five primetime, national-television games mark the second consecutive season the team has had five such games entering the season.
The Colts will play Chicago (September 7), Tennessee (October 27), New England (November 2), San Diego (November 23) and Jacksonville (December 18) in primetime.
A year ago, the Colts – after winning Super Bowl XLI – entered the season with primetime games against New Orleans, Jacksonville, San Diego, Atlanta and Baltimore, then had a sixth primetime game added under flex scheduling.
"Five primetime games, I think, are a testimony to the type of team and players we have," Dungy said.
The Colts went 4-2 in primetime last season, with a record of 17-6 in primetime in Dungy's six seasons. They had won 12 consecutive primetime games before a 23-21 loss to San Diego this past season.
The Colts will open the season with a nationally-televised primetime game against Chicago on NBC. That game will be the first regular-season game in Lucas Oil Stadium, the state-of-the-art, retractable-roof facility scheduled to open next season in downtown Indianapolis.
"Our people are always happy to play in the night games in national TV," Dungy said. "Like every year, there are some big challenges, but we're pretty excited about it and looking forward to the opener and opening up the new stadium against Chicago."
BYE-BYE: The Colts will have a September bye for a second time in seven seasons under Dungy.
The Colts, who have a Week 4 bye on September 28 – a week after a home game against Jacksonville – last had a September bye week in 2002, Dungy's first season. Their bye weeks since have been in October – Week 7 in 2003, Week 6 in 2004, Week 8 in 2005, Week 6 in 2006 and Week 6 this past season.
Week 4 is the first week teams have byes this season, with New England, Seattle, Detroit and the New York Giants also off that week.
"What I did see right away was the bye early in the season, the fourth week, which is a little early for us," Dungy said. "Again, you take it when it comes."
REMEMBER SEPTEMBER: The Colts haven't lost a game in September since 2004, when they lost the season opener in New England, 27-24.
They currently have a 12-game winning streak in September, something Dungy said has been critical to the team's recent success. Their 12-game September winning streak is the third-longest such streak in NFL history behind Dallas (21 games, 1965-1974) and Buffalo (13, 1990-1993).
The Colts this season play host to Chicago in Week 1, visit Minnesota in Week 2 and play host to Jacksonville in Week 3.
"We like to get off to fast starts," Dungy said. "We have some tough games early on. The key is going to be getting off to a fast start."
WAIT AND SEE: Each season, Dungy says it's impossible to judge the difficulty of a schedule in April. He said that's true this season, too.
Which is why he said although the Colts' stretch of games in late October appears difficult, it's far too early to tell. Including games at Green Bay and Tennessee in late October, Indianapolis will play seven consecutive opponents – Green Bay, Tennessee, New England, Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego and Cleveland – who finished .500 or better last season.
Green Bay, Tennessee, New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego all made the postseason.
In all, eight of the Colts' games will be against teams that made the postseason last season – two each against Jacksonville and Tennessee and one each against New England, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Green Bay.
"You never know how it's going to be," Dungy said. "On paper, right now, it looks very tough. It looks like it's going to be our toughest stretch of the year, but you never really know. Those are good teams. We're going to have to play them. We have some road trips in there: Monday night, Sunday (night). That's how it goes. Somehow we have to get ourselves ready. . .